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Red Wings should sign Dylan Larkin for as long as possible

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For all the things that went wrong for the Edmonton Oilers last season, a funny thing snuck under the radar: Leon Draisaitl was probably worth the money.

Granted, that’s a relative thing, but from here, $8.5 million per year doesn’t seem so outrageous for a 70-point player who showed some promise without Connor McDavid, became dominant at little things like face-offs, and won’t turn 23 until October.

While I’d argue that the Oilers could have saved some money if they extended Draisaitl as early as possible instead of allowing him to break through during a contract year, the truth is that this situation is probably superior in the big picture. Just think of what a difference-making center like Draisaitl will cost by 2024-25, the final year of his current deal.

The Detroit Red Wings should follow a similar train of thought when it comes to their own blue-chip center, Dylan Larkin.

Possible parallels

The Athletic’s Craig Custance provided a detailed breakdown of Larkin’s contract with the Red Wings as an RFA, a read that’s easily worth your time. Every indication is that the negotiations have been healthy, including this quote from Larkin following the end of Detroit’s 2017-18 season.

“It’s got to make sense for the team as well as myself,” Larkin said. “I don’t want to be a burden on the cap or for the team. I really want to do something that — obviously it’s my future, when I want to have a family later in life, it’s something that can be pretty significant — but I also want to win and I want to be on a team that can have good players and can be competitive.”

Sure, there’s always a chance that this is Classic Lip Service, yet quotes like these just as often do portend a player who wants to find a compromise everyone can live with.

Custance also compares Larkin to Draisaitl (sub required), rightly noting that it would be risky for the Red Wings to assume that Larkin could make the leap to be the 70-point player Draisaitl’s been during the past two seasons. After all, Larkin scored 63 points in 2017-18, easily the best output of his also-very-young career.

If I were in Ken Holland’s shoes, I would have approached the free agent summer totally differently, I’d sign Larkin for as long as possible, even if it meant rolling the dice a bit when it comes to AAV.

I mean, sure, it’s enticing to try to land a big bargain. David Pastrnak, one of Custance’s comparables, looks like a serious bargain for Boston at his deal-with-the-devil $6.66M. Matt Cane’s remarkably accurate contract estimates call for Larkin to land six years at a $6.32M clip, which is the sort of situation that can make bargain-hunters salivate.

And, no doubt, the Red Wings could use some wins. Just check the scary money and term for Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, and Danny DeKeyser if you need a reason to cringe.

A Larkin contract shouldn’t be about all of that, as ideally, his term would far outlast even Holland’s worst opuses.

One more intriguing comparison

While Larkin doesn’t boast the exact same ceiling, the Red Wings could luck into a sweet, sweet deal like the Colorado Avalanche did with their lightning-fast center Nathan MacKinnon.

The Avalanche signed MacKinnon in July 2016, when he was coming off of a 52-point season, and he followed it up with a modest 53 points. But after almost winning a Hart Trophy via a brilliant 39-goal, 97-point season, the 22-year-old’s $6.3M cap hit through 2022-23 stands as arguably the best steal in the NHL. Things are looking up for Colorado right now, yet eventually GM Joe Sakic should be judged by whether or not he can leverage that jaw-dropping bargain to greater success.

Speed isn’t the only area where MacKinnon and Larkin share some fascinating similarities, either.

MacKinnon had long been a low-percentage shooter before 2017-18, hitting a low point of 6.4 percent in 2016-17. That changed last season, playing some role in his leap from “very good” to “one of the best.”

What if Larkin can parallel MacKinnon in the near future? He only scored 16 goals this past season, but Larkin connected at just a 6.9 shooting percentage (232 SOG in 82 games). Like MacKinnon, Larkin’s career has been a bit on the quantity over quality side, as his career average is just 8.9 percent.

The nightmare scenario is that he simply lacks shooting talent, yet the ideal one is that a spike is looming. Sometimes people get a little too wrapped up in believing that every prospect simply hasn’t unlocked some fleeting potential, but that’s a lot more reasonable in a guy who’s a) already produced, b) will turn just 22 on July 30, and c) probably has, at times, tried to do too much on bad teams.

Beyond the bridge

Alongside sending baffling contracts to veterans who are unlikely to be part of any broader solution, the Red Wings also frustrate a bit in only signing Andreas Athanasiou and Anthony Mantha to two-year deals.

Yes, the cap hits were very reasonable, but the Red Wings face the very real threat of having to pay up for more expensive deals once they’re in a better situation to more viably contend. That will be the time when they’ll wish they rolled the dice with younger talent boasting some room to grow, particularly since those same players are easier to trade if management sours on them.

Of course, there’s the possibility that neither player wanted to ink a lengthier deal with the Red Wings, so getting something done is absolutely better than nothing.

Either way, handing a substantial, prime-covering contract to Larkin would serve as quite the balm for the concerns of future-minded fans and critics.

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Look, there’s no denying that the Red Wings’ cap situation is tight, even with Johan Franzen headed for LTIR. Such concerns raise the degree of difficulty for signing Larkin, and a reasonable six-year deal certainly wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Smart teams find bargains when they can, and show foresight in their planning.

Such descriptions haven’t exactly fit the bill for the Red Wings in some time, but if they want to get back to that level, they’ll need to get things right with players such as Larkin. He’s easily worth the risk.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Red Wings agree with Mantha on two-year, $6.6 million contract

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DETROIT — The Detroit Red Wings have agreed to a two-year, $6.6 million contract with Anthony Mantha.

The Red Wings announced the move with the restricted free agent Wednesday, keeping the 23-year-old wing after he led the team with 24 goals last season.

Mantha had 48 points in 80 games last season. He has 43 goals and 44 assists in two-plus seasons with the Red Wings. Detroit drafted him 20th overall in 2013.

The Red Wings re-signed restricted free agent Andreas Athanasiou last year with a two-year contract.

Their next task is completing negotiations with restricted free agent Dylan Larkin on a multiyear contract.

Is this it for Zetterberg with Red Wings? Maybe it should be

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With his back issues in mind, the Detroit Red Wings aren’t sure if Henrik Zetterberg will be able to play next season.

It’s something GM Ken Holland acknowledged as free agency began on July 1, according to reporters including Ted Kulfan of the Detroit News.

“The last I talked to him, he’s planning on playing,” Holland said. “Obviously his back is going to determine whether he can or can’t. Do I have a clear green light (as to whether Zetterberg is returning)? I’m expecting him to play. Do I have a clear green light? No.”

With that uncertainty in mind, it’s not too surprising that something as minor as Zetterberg playing golf was enough to seem like an “encouraging sign” to the Red Wings, as the Detroit Free-Press’ Helene St. James noted today. Apparently Zetterberg joined Erik Karlsson and other pals on the greens, as Karlsson shared:

Another beautiful day. #trumpinternational

A post shared by Erik Karlsson (@erikkarlsson65) on

Sure, playing golf is lot easier when you aren’t in excruciating back pain, but it merely provides a minor bit of optimism about Zetterberg’s health. Without diving too deep into #PleaseLikeMySport territory, it’s fair to say that a jovial day of golf with your pals (pro athletes or not) isn’t exactly the same as dealing with checks, slashes, and hooks in the NHL.

Clearly, there’s little certainty about Zetterberg’s viability.

Personally, though, this is another case of the wrong questions being asked. The Red Wings aren’t best served asking if Zetterberg could play in 2018-19; instead, they should be wondering if he should.

What’s best for Zetterberg?

With 56 points last season, Zetterberg finished second in scoring for the Red Wings, trailing only Dylan Larkin‘s 63. The sturdy Swede was outright brilliant the year before, easily leading Detroit with 68 points in 2016-17. By just about any reasonable measure, Zetterberg is still good enough to play.

Still, his efforts failed to land the Red Wings in the playoffs in either of the past two seasons, and the Red Wings fell in the first round in 2014-15 and 2015-16.

On paper, Zetterberg could face a Sisyphean task in 2018-19: trying to push a mediocre (if not outright bad) team to the playoffs while suffering through back pain. At 37, the upside seems pretty dismal.

Much of the Red Wings messaging is about “culture,” and such thoughts sometimes trickle down to fans and media. Cameron Kuom of Wings Nation worries about the potential off-ice impacts of the Red Wings possibly losing their captain, for instance.

Yet, what about the possibly grim alternative of fans and young teammates watching Zetterberg getting run into the ground for … what, the lure of finishing in the East’s playoff bubble? Miraculously being bounced from the first round?

What’s best for Zetterberg might also be best for Red Wings

Nostalgia represents a tantalizing siren call, one Ken Holland clearly struggles to resist.

Still, at some point, younger Red Wings such as Larkin, Anthony Mantha, and eventually Filip Zadina will need to serve as the leadership group of this franchise, thus being responsible for “the culture.” Why not ease them into such roles during a season of low expectations, rather than pasting the “C” on someone’s chest later on, when fans are growing more and more restless with a one foot in, one foot out rebuild?

It’s fairly obvious that, from looking at Zetterberg’s contract, the expectation was that he’d probably play his last games in 2018-19. Consider how his actual salary compares to his cap hit going forward, via Cap Friendly:

2018-19: $6.083M cap hit; $3.35M salary
2019-20: $6.083M cap hit; $1M salary
2020-21: $6.083M cap hit; $1M salary

Look, it’s no fun to pay someone not to play, which is what the Red Wings would essentially be doing if they place Zetterberg on LTIR.

It makes sense on a number of levels, however, especially since they don’t need to worry about the cap floor even before handing RFA deals to Larkin and Mantha.

Beyond saving Zetterberg some anguish, the Red Wings would increase their odds of landing another high-end draft pick if their captain goes on LTIR and they wade through a rougher regular season. It’s not as if Zetterberg would lack credibility in going on injured reserve, as there have been plenty of questions about his health for some time now.

***

If the Red Wings are realistic about their near future, they should err on the side of encouraging Zetterberg to way his health more than trying to gut out the 2018-19 season.

Again, what’s the best-case scenario if Zetterberg plays? He’d take a roster spot from a player who might be part of a longer-term solution in Detroit, on a team few expect to contend. There’s also the unsettling possibility that his own play would plummet. Zetterberg would have robust company if he joined the ranks of sports stars who’ve suffered depressing final seasons, but wouldn’t be more pleasant to see him instead end his Red Wings days with his head held high?

Conversely, the Red Wings could instead improve their odds of landing a lottery pick like Jack Hughes in 2019, something that – deep down – they should realize they really need. Along with the torch being passed to the next generation of Red Wings, there might be a better chance of fringe prospects receiving crucial make-or-break opportunities.

Also, a beloved star wouldn’t needlessly suffer.

Of course, this conversation is moot if Zetterberg really wants to play, or needs to find out for sure if he’s done. Perhaps he’d prefer a relaxed schedule, much like Teemu Selanne experienced (sometimes by choice, other times with hard feelings) during his final season?

There are still some questions in need of answers, and plenty can change between today and the moment Zetterberg decides to call it a career (or, like Pavel Datsyuk, an NHL career).

As sad as it will be to see Z go, there’s a strong chance that it will end up being what’s best for everyone involved.

MORE ON RED WINGS’ RELUCTANT REBUILD

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Highs and lows for Garth Snow as Islanders GM

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When the New York Islanders promoted backup goalie Garth Snow to the position of GM in July 2006, you could almost hear the cackles from around the NHL.

It’s honestly a shame that Twitter only technically existed back then, sort of like how Snow technically wasn’t fired from the Islanders even though he was “relieved of his duties” as Isles GM on Tuesday. In retrospect, the decision to name Snow as Islanders GM wasn’t quite “laugh out loud” material; instead, his tenure stands as a mixed bag.

If you have to give a sweeping review? Yes, you’d probably deem it not good enough. Simply put, NHL teams need to strike quickly when they essentially hit the lottery, as they did by selecting John Tavares first overall in 2009. And, really, the Islanders failed to take advantage of another gift: Tavares’ second contract, which carried a ludicrously low cap hit of $5.5 million from 2012-13 until this past season.

Let’s take a look back at the mixed bag that was Snow’s 12-year(!) tenure as Islanders GM. Keep in mind this isn’t meant to be totally comprehensive, so feel free to comment on other moves and moments.

Steps in the right direction, just not enough

During Snow’s tenure as GM, the Islanders managed to make the playoffs four times (out of 12 attempts, which doesn’t feel redundant since, you know, lockouts).

In 2015-16, the Islanders’ most recent postseason run, they won their first series since shocking the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins (who were repeat champions). As you might expect, Tavares played a key role in eliminating the Florida Panthers during that competitive 2016 series.

At the time, it seemed like the Islanders were finally, truly ascendant. Instead, their progress stalled, as they failed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs during the final two seasons of Snow’s tenure.

The good and bad news is that, relatively speaking, Snow leaves Lou Lamoriello with a relatively clean slate. Yes, there are some regrettable deals (looking at you, Andrew Ladd and Cal Clutterbuck), but Cap Friendly estimates the Isles’ cap spending at $46.74 million.

Of course, the ideal scenario is that John Tavares pushes that up closer to $60M. Either way, Lamoriello can put his mark on this team without spending too much time sending people to “Robidas Island.”

Peaks and valleys

The fascinating thing about Snow’s tenure is that you can look at various significant players and often see the good and the bad.

(Let’s go ahead and skate past most of his earlier moves, merely noting that some give him a pass for the notorious Rick DiPietro contract.)

Take Kyle Okposo, the last first-round pick selected before Snow’s watch.

On one hand, hindsight indicates that the Islanders probably made the right choice in letting him leave via free agency. Unfortunately, they essentially chose Andrew Ladd over Okposo, so it was still a situation they’d seek a mulligan for.

Travis Hamonic is another interesting example. He was a solid steal in the draft (53rd overall in 2008), and Snow waited through some drama to trade him when the time was right for the Islanders, landing some serious draft capital from the Calgary Flames. Hamonic struggled for a Calgary team that missed the playoffs, setting the stage for the Islanders to hold picks 11 and 12 for this upcoming draft.

Then again, even a struggling Hamonic might have helped them stop some of the bleeding on defense …

Trading away high picks

From a drafting perspective, Snow showed some ability to find some gems (Anders Lee, sixth round in 2009) and also was able to fix some mistakes by way of clever trades. OK, to be more specific, he bamboozled Edmonton Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli to help him turn Griffin Reinhart and Ryan Strome into Mathew Barzal, Jordan Eberle, and Anthony Beauvillier. Considering how the Reinhart/Barzal scenario looks, it truly is remarkable that Chiarelli took Snow’s call regarding Eberle.

(Snow also memorably offered the Columbus Blue Jackets a Mike Ditka sending everything for Ricky Williams-type deal to move up in the 2012 NHL Draft, yet was turned down. Now that was quite the “what if?” scenario.)

Granted, things didn’t always work out when Snow was guilty of a misstep.

Michael Dal Colle, the fifth pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, has only played four games with the Islanders to this date. Masochists could scroll down that draft to see the likes of Nikolaj Ehlers (ninth), Dylan Larkin (15th), and David Pastrnak (25th) selected after him.

Now, sure, just about every NHL GM curses a bad-in-retrospect selection, but some of Snow’s biggest swing-and-misses do sting.

That’s especially true with the high draft pick trade that didn’t work out. While Cal Clutterbuck clutters the Islanders’ cap with a shaky contract, Nino Niederreiter is a key forward for the Minnesota Wild. Niederreiter only played 64 games for the Islanders before being shipped off in that one-sided trade.

That big summer and the breakthrough that never happened

While it didn’t produce the breakthrough many hoped for, October 4, 2014 remains Snow’s biggest and maybe best day as Islanders GM.

During that memorable afternoon, Snow landed Johnny Boychuk from the Boston Bruins and Nick Leddy from the Chicago Blackhawks. The Leddy deal still looks pretty spiffy today, but either way, it was a prime example of an up-and-coming team leveraging contenders’ cap conundrums to get better. The Islanders simply didn’t improve enough.

One might attribute that inability to go from good to great (and eventually the malaise to slip from good to mediocre?) on Snow’s coaching choices. Snow stuck with Jack Capuano for quite some time, and the decision to promote Doug Weight ended up being a failure.

For all we know, a more experienced or innovative coach might have been able to optimize a group that, while imperfect, certainly boasted some talent. Just look at the Pittsburgh Penguins under Mike Sullivan vs. a similar Penguins team held back by Mike Johnston’s ill-fitting system if you want an example of what a difference that can make.

Snow frequently showed patience, something that paid off for similarly long-tenured Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. Sometimes, too much of a good thing like patience can really be a detriment in sports. It’s fair to wonder if that was the case with Garth Snow.

***

You could kill hours pouring over the highs and lows of Snow’s days. Really, it’s a testament to how tough it can be to run an NHL team, especially one trying to shake a bad reputation like the Islanders fought.

Snow worked past the days of trading for a player’s negotiating rights, only to realize they wouldn’t sign with his team. He recognized under-the-radar talent on the waiver wire and boasted draft-day hits amid the misses.

Still, he was unable to get over the hump for a variety of reasons, including (wait for it) goaltending.

Of all the things that went wrong for the former NHL backup, that might be the factor that stings the most.

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

US routs Norway 9-3 at hockey worlds, Czechs blank France

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HERNING, Denmark (AP) — Captain Patrick Kane scored two goals for the second straight game and added an assist to lead the United States to a 9-3 victory over Norway for its sixth straight win at the ice hockey world championship on Sunday.

The Czech Republic beat France 6-0 for its second consecutive shutout.

Kane scored with a slap shot from the right circle on a power play to open the scoring and added another power play goal almost from the same spot for a 2-0 lead.

The forward leads the tournament with 15 points for five goals and 10 assists.

“A good performance by the team tonight,” Kane said. “We had a lot of different guys to contribute and chip in, which is good to see, and give us a lot of confidence going into the next game against Finland.”

Dylan Larkin and Cam Atkinson had a goal and a couple assists, Charlie McAvoy got a goal and an assist in another high-scoring victory for the U.S.

“Our goal is to keep winning, to keep getting better,” Atkinson said.

Alec Martinez, Anders Lee, Colin White and Neal Pionk had a goal apiece.

Norway got its goals from Kristian Forsberg, Ken Andre Olimb and Mathis Olimb.

David Pastrnak and Roman Horak had two goals each and Dmitrij Jaskin and Martin Necas contributed one each for the Czechs.

Goaltender David Rittich stopped 10 shots for the shutout.

The United States tops Group B in Herning with 16 points, four more than Finland that plays Germany later Sunday.

Denmark has 11 points in third followed by Canada on 10, which has played one game less. Norway remains on three points.

The Czechs are third in Group A in Copenhagen with 12 points. Sweden leads with 14 points, a point ahead of Russia in second. Switzerland is fourth with nine and plays Sweden later.